“The biologist, naturalist, and writer EO Wilson once said, ‘Where scientific observation addresses all phenomena existing in the real world, scientific experimentation addresses all possible real worlds, and scientific theory addresses all conceivable real worlds, the humanities emcompasses all three of these levels and one more: the infinity of all fantasy worlds.’ That’s how important the humanities are in a school community.”
Head of School Lee Fertig, in a video message opening the inaugural Nueva Humanities Fair in spring 2021
When humanities coordinator Jen Paull joined the first Humanities Fair via Zoom this spring, she found herself irrepressibly grinning for hours on end. Time flew by as she joined a discussion with ‘Dr. Indiana Bones,’ watched a student’s tour of the ancient agora in Athens, took in the powerful spoken-word poetry of Mahogany Browne, learned from an Ohlone community member, and gained new insight into Garfield thanks to a student’s presentation—all in one afternoon.
As the sessions closed, she joined a flurry of wishes that the event wouldn’t end.
This inaugural Humanities Fair was one of the many humanities initiatives that came to fruition during the 2020–2021 school year, a year that saw tremendous growth in the humanities at Nueva. What started as an idea of Diane Rosenberg, former head of school, and Matt Berman, former lower school humanities teacher, has transformed into a major area of focus across PreK–12.
“Nueva’s roots are in the arts and humanities,” Matt said. “When Diane and I arrived at Nueva there was a huge effort put into improving the STEM and design programs. Before the 2018–2019 school year, we felt it was time to balance out our focus: Nueva was beginning to gain a reputation as a STEM school, and we knew it to be so much more than that.”
Today, Jen leads the program and serves as a central hub to provide information, resources, and support for faculty and students.
“Diane and Matt had a vision around creating a humanities program that would deepen the work happening in the classroom and support students who wanted to go further and deeper in their exploration of a specific humanities topic,” Jen said.
In the beginning, the aim was to bring humanities into everyday life at Nueva. As director, Matt strove to weave together elements of the humanities to create rich experiences for students, including inviting guest speakers, creating reading challenges, and starting the Humanities Circle, an event for Nuevans and community members alike to engage in hands-on classes designed to spark and deepen passions for literature, language, history, and culture. Among the guests Matt brought in were author Armistead Maupin and storyteller Jim Weiss.
Following Matt’s retirement, and with Jen at the helm leading the Humanities Program, the program has taken off.
One potent example of faculty partnership: the fall 2019 field trip for Tom Dorrance's upper school Capitalism and the Apocalypse class, which was facilitated by Jen and Humanities Center Task Force member Ann Green. The class traveled to the Cecil H. Green Library at Stanford University to explore the stacks and special collections, which allowed students to dive into a multitude of primary sources for their own research around the cultural history of capitalism.
“I think this field trip is the perfect example of the work being done in the humanities and how Jen really made this field trip happen,” Tom said. “Jen helped me to figure out what is possible for my students outside of the classroom. She introduced resources and connections I didn’t even know we had.”
This past fall, Jen helped to organize a special after-school noodle-making program designed to extend the middle school students’ interdisciplinary study of the Silk Road. Author and restaurateur Jennifer Lin-Liu spoke about her own travels on the Silk Road, as she came to learn its history firsthand, and then walked participants through the process of making noodles.
The Silk Road study is a cornerstone of the seventh- and eighth-grade experience that brings together history, art, religion, geography, food, and science.
“I organized this project as a humanities initiative, an example of the kinds of curricular support that the Humanities Program does,” Jen said.
The goal of programs like these, Jen shared, is to provide opportunities for students in all grades that focus on relevant topics tied to the curriculum which support students’ curiosity about the human experience.
“I found it cool how a food I have encountered a countless number of times has such an amazing and culturally vivid story behind them,” said eighth grader Rohan T., who spent an afternoon in late fall learning from Jennifer.
Lower school teachers Sarah Merkt and Emily Mitchell have also recently partnered with Jen to bring two days of special humanities programming to all lower school students.
“We centered our programming around two central questions, one for each day: ‘What is the power of a story?’ and ‘How do the arts give you a window, door, or mirror into the experience of yours or others?” Emily explained. “Our goal was to delight, expose, reveal, and uplift students.”
“We started with the idea of stories because we wanted to make sure the content was accessible to all students across PreK through fourth grade,” Sarah added. “Oftentimes, the best teachers teach lessons through stories and we know that people at every age can connect to stories.”
Jen was integral in getting these programming days off the ground.
“Jen was really fantastic,” Sarah said. “She asked us questions to make sure we were balanced in our approach, and she went into the community to seek out guests in a way that I could not have done.”
From workshops on topics ranging from mapmaking and calligraphy to poetry and book writing to ethical dilemmas and emojis, the inaugural biennial Humanities Fair, a joint effort of the Nueva Parents’ Association and the Humanities Program, was a rousing success. In years to come, the Humanities Fair will alternate with the STEM fair and take place in every odd year. The aim of these fairs is to show Nueva’s balanced commitment to these disciplines, as well as give students a chance to share their work and thinking.
“When we begin to plan this inaugural fair, we started from the idea that, like the STEM Fair, it should be a showcase for student passions and learning, paired with outside speakers that would feed those passions and also bring new ideas and excitement,” said Sarah Ordody, Nueva parent and co-chair of the Humanities Fair.
“The work the students did is beautiful,” Emily said. “One of my former students, a current second grader, invited me to attend his presentation because it was about work he started last year in my class. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to revisit past students and see what they are working on.”
Sarah Merkt shares similar sentiments to Emily’s about the importance for students to have a space to showcase their work.
“I had a few students who had been chomping at the bit to share their work with the broader Nueva community,” Sarah said. “They were so joyful and excited to spend their Sunday at the [virtual] Humanities Fair.”
These presentations provided students with additional leadership opportunities outside of the classroom. Fourth graders Mia T. and Lucia v. G. were two of Sarah’s students who were eager to share their love of humanities with others at the fair. The pair hosted a workshop, “Poetry in Politics,” which they described as “How poetry ties in to the nuts and bolts of politics.” During the workshop, they shared information about select famous poets, including Amanda Gorman, Maya Angelou, and Audre Lorde; read poems they had written following the Presidential Inauguration; and then invited participants to begin to write their own poems.
“Over the course of the past year, I generated a love of poetry and I really wanted to share my passion for poetry with the Nueva community,” Mia said. “To me, the Humanities Fair is so Nueva, because Nueva is this innovative place where we learn by caring and doing.”
Lucia added, “I felt really lucky to be able to participate in a very unique opportunity and experience like the Humanities Fair. It felt important to me that we were able to share our passions and interests with the whole school.”
In addition to hosting workshops and being audience members, a few Nueva students had the opportunity to moderate a panel of guests. Senior and 20–21 Nueva Current editor-in-chief Willow Yang served as moderator for the panel, “Social Journalism,” for guests including Peter Hartlaub ’82, San Francisco Chronicle’s culture critic, Max Strebel ’04, filmmaker, and Emma Strebel ’07, artist.
“We had an amazing panel of distinguished guests that had, at times, conflicting worldviews, which is natural for a topic as controversial as the role of journalism in the modern world,” Willow reflected. “It was an honor to be able to facilitate the discussion; the topics covered were all things I’d talked about in my various classes, so it was great to see professionals and alumni talk about the same issues.”
With more than 750 attendees in 38 unique sessions and a post-event music jam session, it was clear to Sarah, fellow co-chair Essy Nickolova, and Jen that the fair was a great success.
“Given that just a few months prior we had no idea what the content would be for the event, what form it would take, and if anyone would even show up, we blew way past any expectations we dared to set,” Sarah said. “For one, we were thrilled with the level of student involvement — both as presenters and as guests. We received more than 100 submissions of student work for the Humanities Fair website (www.nuevahumanitiesfair.org) and evening jam concert, and more than 50 students signed up to present, sit on panels, and otherwise volunteer for the live event.”
Jen echoed Sarah’s excitement. “I love that towards the end of day so many people were saying, ‘I wish this wouldn’t end!’ and sharing how energized the fair made them feel, even though it was a few extra hours of Zoom on a weekend,” she said. “In the realm of humanities, this is why we do an event like this, as the work can often feel limited to a particular classroom or exchange between teacher and students. We are trying to broaden the range of ways students can share their work and get exposed to awesome new ideas.”
THE FUTURE OF THE HUMANITIES PROGRAM
What began as a vision of former Head of School Diane Rosenberg has blossomed into a robust and deeply embedded Nueva program. From division-wide reads to guest speakers and author talks to the Humanities Fair and more, humanities at Nueva have once again regained a larger place in our school experience.
And while they’ve accomplished much, Jen and her team still have many more ideas they’d love to bring to students in the years to come.
Piloted during the 2020–2021 school year was the first edition of a Nueva humanities-studies journal, Romanesco. Jen worked with a group of upper school student-volunteers and faculty-volunteers to put this first edition together. The hope in the future is to include middle school students and to publish it twice annually.
“This journal features student work on a span of topics that really does justice to the way humanities has a big wingspan,” Jen shared. “All of the submissions show an appetite to understand and interpret human curiosities. This is a chance for people to see the depth of thinking and variety of thinking going on around us.”
In the coming year, there are hopes of recruiting faculty members to be “humaniteers,” teachers who have a dream to enhance their humanities programming and want to partner with Jen to bring those ideas to life. And the Humanities Circle, a community-wide event which aligns with Nueva’s Mission II “by engaging the education community actively within the Bay Area,” will return in spring 2022.
It is clear that for many in the community, the Humanities Program has provided them with an outlet for creativity and opportunities to think deeply and critically about topics that are important to them.
“In broad strokes, the humanities programs teach you how to be simultaneously inquisitive and empathetic,” said Grace Holmes ’21, who recently completed her tenure as Nueva Current opinion and culture editor and serves on the Romanesco editorial board. “The Humanities Program at Nueva has given me the opportunity to continuously strive to understand the world in a different way.”
“So much of what we’re doing with humanities boils down to three actions: Feed the love, create the experience, spread the word,” Jen said. “Feeding the love means how we help students pursue their humanities interests further and how we feed our appreciation of the humanities’ significance. Creating the experience means how we work together to find activities, special guests, and resources that can support and extend all of the incredible humanities studies happening in our classrooms. And spreading the word touches on how we’ll raise the profile of the humanities, both within Nueva and in the greater community.”
Lucia and Mia may have summed up best the importance of this work: “If humanities wasn’t part of our lives, we wouldn’t feel whole.”